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Mixed Company is written by Saint Paul Sunday staff, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the show and the classical music they love. We welcome your online comments.

« Visual contrasts | Main | Time/Space Pianism »

September 22, 2006

Mystery Man

This program, performed by the great Emerson String Quartet, airs on the eve of Dmitri Shostakovich's hundredth birthday. With that in mind, it felt important to say something momentous, or at least new, about the composer, whose biography seems to grow less determinate with time, but whose music strikes me as ever more timely and accessible.

For me, though, the debate over his agonized loyalties is increasingly beside the point. We know at least that he suffered terribly, in a kind of twilight of dread, throughout and long after the Stalinist nightmare. He may have been less a casualty and more a reluctant cog, but he can't possibly have come through the horrors undamaged. As the welcome reassessment of his life and art continues around this centennial, it's perhaps worth remembering too that for many survivors of authoritarianism, self-betrayal, which is always complicit in the betrayal of others, is perhaps the cruelest legacy of all.

And as my interest in Shostakovich the victim/collaborator/cipher dwindles, my astonishment over the composer and his music grows. On this program, the Emerson gives us a brilliant sampling of his range, from the exuberant, sometimes ecstatic, early quartets—works that meld restive drive with the composer's endlessly seizing ear—to the spectral thirteenth, whose deeply insular language the Emerson translates with unsettling sympathy (and nerve).

Shostakovich's music could seem alien to me as a younger person. These days, particularly in the late quartets, there's often little interference at all (at times too little). Under the spell of the Emersons, we just go where the music takes us. If the trip is at times a little harrowing, there's also the great comfort of knowing someone has been there before.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at September 22, 2006 4:58 PM

 

Comments

Strange as it may seem, the music of Shostakovich has been part of my 'inner ear' since childhood. My family owned the 78-rpm album of Toscanini's heralded American premiere of the "Leningrad" Symphony (No. 7), and already as a three-year-old I was responding to some of the calamitous energy of that score's opening movement (I dubbed the insistent Nazi march section "bottles breaking"...hey, what did I know about ostinato patterns back then?). This would have been 1949...the symphony was new in 1942.

I also remember the premiere American recording (on the Everest label) of a smuggled tape of "Babi Yar" (Symphony #13), then the subsequent first USA performances of that work and Nos. 14 and 15 by the Philadelphia Orchestra (all aired on Minnesota Public Radio, in the days when PhilOrch concerts were a weekly facet of our schedule).

Perhaps I still respond as I did when a child...everything you need to know is in the music. And it is wonderful, powerful, and amazing.

By michael barone at September 25, 2006 10:01 AM

 

September 26, 2006
Dear St.PaulSunday staff/guests-
From any perspective your program represents
the finest in radio. I hope there are many
young Americans listening-

From many perspectives- especially those statistics about drugs, violence, obesity,
poverty, and national debt in America- our
country has turned from fundamental truths to
a trend of individual hyposcrisy/vanity which
threatens to deprive everyone of a meaningful
existence.


That is why your program is so valuable- having
intelligent discourse inevitably makes any
listener redefine themselves and invites others
to participate/investigate the world of music.


In terms of contrast- the Horrors of the Stalin
era don't compare to the Horrors of American life
that have slashed across our news information
bureaus! The apathy towards the Iraq War
expenditures- lives on both sides as well as
damages to structures- ( Thank goodness the
Museum relics were returned) by the majority of
the American public- really means a great % of
the public has a " Superbowl mentality"- willing
to tolerate Michael Jackson's "appearances in
courtroom wearing pajamas- or Christopher Reeve's
fall from his horse- or even 200 million dollars/
day in Iraq for soccor balls/laptops for Iraq
schoolchildren- it all means those simple elements
of respect,honesty and devotion that preserved the
Russian spirit and disappeared from the American
horizon.

By Charles E. Nines at September 25, 2006 7:30 PM

 

Hey! whatdaya know? I finally got to email you all. Thank you for your rich programs. I have submitted for a sample of Diapason, and the newsletter from Pipedreams, and possibly from Thistle and Shamrock. And go!! Hometown Prairie companions.

By Clarence LaFuentes II at September 27, 2006 3:36 PM

 

My first experience with Shostakovich's music was playing his 3 "Fantastic Dances" when I was about 11. What wonderful little pieces. Since then, however, I wasn't so aware of his music,
I was more interested in Prokofieff's music in my teen years. There was the wonderful Polka from the "Age of Gold" ballet and of course the two wonderful concertos.

It was in adulthood that I came to appreciate Shostakovich's music, especially the body of symphonies. I had to admit that he was generally
better than Prokofieff in this area. Interesting that they both wrote wonderful 'Fifth' symphonies that seem to parallel Beethoven's Fifth in terms of power, energy and the elevation of the human spirit!

However, getting beyond the Fifth we see that Shostakovich has many other symphonic masterpieces. What extraordinary creative tension he was always under, having to please the state, and yet always striving to say what he needed to, artistically, in these works.

Rachmaninoff felt he was "very talented, but needs to use his eraser more". I don't really agree with the last part. Shostakovich was enough of a genius that the ruggedness of his writing always had direction, he really didn't need to rework anything more than he did. Of course the tart, ascerbic sections are contrasted with sections of supreme sumptuousness and lyricism. A friend of mine compared his music to sunlight breaking through
grey clouds, gradually, and I think this is a good analogy.

I've also come to believe that his music was more relevant to the 20th century then Prokofieff's, even though I still think SP's
Cantata for the October Revolution is wonderful,
I think DS's use of Russian influences to be more timely and cosmopolitan (SP is such a strange mixture of folk material and modernism,
both extremely old fashioned and provincial and yet sugary on the surface, I had a teacher who
compared a lot of his music to "turning on the sugar") But I don't mean to be critical of SP.
It's that DS is a bit more even-handed and sure-footed. And his music can be sweet, without being saccharine.

So I have come to appreciate the power of Shostakovich's symphonies. I can't imagine the 20th century without them. They definitely belong to the world of the Soviet Union, but also to the whole world. Being aware of the Cold War was also being aware of DS. If he had only lived to see 1989, what he would have had to say!

By Paul Hjelmstad at September 28, 2006 2:47 PM

 

Could you tell me who published the score of Portrait, by Edwin Finkel, performed last Sunday on PHC? eg

By e greifer at December 21, 2006 8:54 AM